In February I spent three weeks in a place called Auroville, an incredible experimental community in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. My experience of the place was mixed. It was completely inspiring in so many ways and in other ways, as residents were happy to admit, it was struggling. While I was there I too struggled with a process that left me feeling isolated and distant from my wife and other people but at the same time filled me with a potent, restless energy which threatened to completely absorb me. I imagined I was tapping into something, a creative channel which is normally difficult for me to access, but something about the place made it easier.
I was also missing my community back in England, and I was all too aware that some of my male friends were preparing to do a sweat lodge together, a ceremony I sorely wished to participate in. I decided to send an email sharing my feelings in an attempt to connect with the process my friends were preparing to go through together. On the day of the sweat lodge I had a strange fever which suddenly came upon me at exactly the same time the lodge began and departed just as suddenly a few hours later. Later I sent another email to one of the men who had taken part in the lodge, describing what I had experienced. I’ve decided to share these two emails here because their content is so closely connected to the subject matter of this blog. Indeed, it was during the time I spent at Auroville that my desire to create this website first began to crystallise.
My experiences here in Auroville and the reading I’ve been doing have further underlined the importance and urgency of this kind of work, so I want to throw something into the fire, one way in which I can feel like I am there with you. I’ve been reflecting deeply on the nature of our society, the way it compels us to become alienated from parts of ourselves, particularly as men who are taught from an early age to bury all these strong feelings we have, which burn with such intensity within us, feelings which almost never find an appropriate place for their authentic expression. This aspect of our identity as men is intrinsically linked to the destructive tendencies of our society, as Max Horkheimer puts it…
Domination of nature involves domination of man. Each [man] not only has to take part in the subjugation of external nature, human and nonhuman, but in order to do so must subjugate nature in himself. Since the subjugation of nature, in and outside of man, goes on without meaningful motive, [our] nature is not really transcended or reconciled but merely repressed.
Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason
As I conceive it, a sweat lodge is a precious opportunity to throw off the shackles of this kind of repression, to come out of our heads and back into our bodies, to scream and wail and bark into the night like the earthly, primordial animals that we are. I don’t know about you, but I could do with a bit of that.
Blessings on you, your families and our sacred land, from Auroville. I will be listening for your voices on the wind on Saturday night.
I cannot explain in rational terms what happened to me on the night of the sweat lodge. It was a fever like nothing I had experienced before. It came on me quickly and faded away just as quickly and apparently it took place at exactly the same time as the lodge. As I lay there shivering and sweating on the bed, my limbs convulsing as if charged with some arcane electricity, pondering the connection between what I was experiencing and the ceremony the Silvatici where engaged in halfway around the world, I was convinced I was about to be very, very ill. At the time, there was nothing mystical or portentous in what was happening to me. It was frightening and unpleasant.
Perhaps the picture I’m painting is a bit overdramatic. Tempted though I was on numerous occasions to wake Sarah, I decided not to, believing that soon enough she would be awake and having to look after me. I was pretty convinced I had eaten something which had not agreed with me even though what I felt was qualitatively different from any food poisoning fever I’ve had before.
A part of me was eerily calm, observing with a significant degree of objectivity the various physical and psychological processes that were underway and completely out of my control. The most curious thing about what I experienced is that although there seemed to be some auditory hallucinations (a deep rhythmic thudding coming through the wall, the sound of someone turning the door handle trying to get in) the “voices” I heard were entirely inside my head. They arose spontaneously from my mind but from nowhere I could identify and I could not claim them as a part of myself – they seemed to be coming from somewhere else entirely. Because of my altered state of consciousness I’m unable to remember anything of what they said but at the time I remember thinking that they did not make much sense. It was like a part of myself had split off and splintered into a dozen manic, unrecognisable pieces, each with something different to say, all of them crowding into my mind, falling over one another in their enthusiasm to be heard.
The sense I have now, having written all this down, is of an experience which is both mysterious and mundane, something that in the past I may have dismissed but now choose not to, because it adds fuel to the fire in my belly, my growing belief that the journey we’re on as a group of men is a most sacred one.
As I re-read this prior to hitting the publish button I can’t help but listen to the voice of the skeptic in my head, whispering that I’m a mad, narcissistic fool to believe there’s any connection between my fever and the sweat lodge, and a double fool for sharing these thoughts with the world. I have no doubt that some readers will sympathise with this view. This part of myself – let’s call him my inner rationalist – certainly deserves his say. But there is another voice in me which has been striving for a long time to be heard. The voice of our culture, with it’s obsession with what is rational and measurable, might quickly jump to the conclusion that these kinds of voices are most irrational and are therefore better off ignored. However, I’m coming around to the idea that the rationalism upon which so much of our society is founded is a thin veneer which barely covers an overwhelming profusion of profoundly irrational and ultimately destructive behaviour. Beginning to listen to the voices which our (arguably insane) society tells us we should ignore is perhaps one way out of the terrible mess we’ve managed to get ourselves into.
We must reclaim our original wholeness, our indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself. And the key to reclaiming our original wholeness is not merely to suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, manage stress, or refurbish dysfunctional relationships but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted, wild psyches, committing ourselves to the largest story we're capable of living, serving something bigger than ourselves. We must dare again to dream the impossible and to romance the world, to feel and honour our kinship with all species and habitats, to embrace the troubling wisdom of paradox, and to shape ourselves into visionaries with the artistry to revitalise our enchanted and endangered world.
Bill Plotkin, Wild Mind